‘We want our children instructed in the principles of holy religion’
DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — For a beautiful building with such a glorious history, the beginning of Cathedral Basilica of St. James was actually quite simple: it was born out of a desire for convenience.
In the early 19th century, a group of 70 immigrants, mostly Irish, from the Village of Brooklyn had grown tired of taking their families on a long ferry ride into Manhattan each week to attend Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street.
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The journey was necessary because at the time there were no churches in Brooklyn. So the group petitioned the Archdiocese of New York for permission to build a church on their side of the river.
Their leader, Peter Turner, circulated a letter outlining their reasoning. “In the first place,” he wrote, “we want our children instructed in the principles of holy religion. We want more convenience in hearing the Word of God ourselves.”
Permission was ultimately granted, and St. James was built on what is now Jay Street and Cathedral Place. It holds the distinction of being the first Catholic church on Long Island and the third to be constructed within the confines of what is now New York City.
The only churches predating it are St. Peter’s Church and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street.
St. James has evolved over the two centuries of its existence into a centerpiece of Catholic life in the Diocese of Brooklyn — a place where generations of priests have been ordained and where people have flocked to pray during momentous events like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001.
Back in 1822, the hardy and determined immigrants who first proposed the idea of a church in Brooklyn also contributed funds and helped with the construction.
“I think it’s fitting that here in the ‘Diocese of Immigrants,’ it was a group of immigrants who established St. James,” said Father Bryan Patterson, the current pastor, who arrived in 2019. “These were not people of great means. But they did have a strong faith.”
At the same time St. James Church was constructed, a graveyard was also established on the site. And like the church, it was a first — the first cemetery on Long Island.
An estimated 7,000 people were buried there between 1823 and 1849 when New York State enacted the Rural Cemeteries Act, a law that ushered in a move away from burying the deceased in church graveyards in favor of commercially-owned cemeteries.
The cemetery is an integral part of the cathedral’s history, according to Deacon Ronald Rizzuto, who has served at St. James since 2002.
“When Father Bryan Patterson arrived here, he emphasized our ancestors and how important it is for us to recognize those who came before us, especially those who are buried here,” Deacon Rizzuto said. “Many of them were Irish immigrants who could not afford to go back to Ireland, so they were buried in the graveyard at St. James.”
For the first 31 years of its existence, St. James was a church, not a cathedral. In 1853, when the Diocese of Brooklyn was established, the church was designated as a cathedral.
The diocese had other plans for a different cathedral, however. Bishop John Loughlin, the diocese’s first bishop, had his sights set on erecting a cathedral in the Fort Greene neighborhood, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Construction began in 1868 but was never finished due to rising costs.
Bishop Charles McDonnell, who succeeded Bishop Loughlin, re-designated St. James as a pro-cathedral, or temporary cathedral, in 1896. At the time, he was still anticipating that the Immaculate Conception Cathedral would eventually rise in Fort Greene.
St. James sustained extensive damage from two fires — one in 1883 and another in 1889 — and a new church building, designed in the Georgian Revival style, was constructed in 1903. It is that building people see today.
In 1972, to mark its 150th anniversary, Bishop Francis Mugavero issued the designation of St. James as a cathedral — restoring its former title. In 1982, Pope John Paul II designated St. James Cathedral as a minor basilica, thus changing its official name to the Cathedral Basilica of St. James.
The pontiff had visited St. James three years earlier, in 1979, during his first trip to the U.S. as pope and delighted the crowds who had gathered on Jay Street to see him.
Another milestone took place in 1999 when relics of St. Therese of Lisieux, one of the most beloved saints among Catholics, were brought to St. James for people to see and venerate.
St. James has been the seat of seven bishops of Brooklyn in the 169 years since the Diocese of Brooklyn was established — Bishop John Loughlin (1853-1891); Bishop Charles McDonnell (1892-1921); Bishop Thomas Molloy (1922-1956); Bishop Brian McEntegart (1957-1968); Bishop Francis Mugavero (1968-1990); Bishop Thomas Daily (1990-2003); and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio (2003-2021).
It is now the seat of the eighth Bishop of Brooklyn, Robert Brennan, who was installed on Nov. 30, 2021. While his installation Mass took place at the larger Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights, Bishop Brennan made sure to visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. James on that day to pray.